Star Ocean

Introduction

Star Ocean (SO) is a relatively rare and late edition to the SNES’ software catalogue. It has acquired a near a cult following amongst some internet gaming communities: one of several commonalities shared with Seiken Densetsu 3.

Many factors help to account for this popularity, the most significant of which being that SO was never released outside of Japan, and remained something of an unknown to the majority of consumers in the West.

But with the advent of console emulation, and the simultaneous uploading of virtually all accompanying ROM images, the rest of the world was suddenly exposed to a treasure trove of games that had never crossed the pond.

That SO was amongst these ‘lost’ titles in the first place was enough to make it the stuff of fables, but when the accompanying superficial qualities – both visual and auditory – came to be known, interest quickly escalated.

By the time the game was finally localised by fans in late 2003, excitement was at its peak. The quality of Dejap’s translation turned out to be excellent, and all that was left to do was play the thing.

Bearing all this in mind; I appreciate that some readers will fail to register most of the criticisms I raise in the ensuing paragraphs. SO is a game that has beaten all the odds to be seen by Western eyes, and we should be grateful for any scant reward that comes from playing it. Be this as it may – I do not feel this should in itself place SO on a pedestal.

Instead; I believe that the game should be seen as it is – unbiased by the surrounding hype and enigma – for the unique insight it offers into the bridge between fourth and fifth generation adventure gaming.

SO is not an Action-RPG game in the strictest sense. It occupies a slightly different niche to the Zeldas and Final Fantasies of the SNES world: one perhaps more closely linked to the Strategy-RPG, though never really finding a suitable perch.

But before I commence with my argument for having SO moved from this particular niche of the SNES Action-RPG category, let us further indulge the protagonists of this high production, post-modern adventure game.

Strengths

Technically it is outstanding. As well as being amongst the biggest carts (48 MBits), it also boasts some of the finest musical scores in 16bit history (thanks to an extra sound channel that Nintendo had apparently neglected), layering the gaming experience with a rich musical accompaniment.

More importantly – the gameplay components which do ‘work’ often excel. In Particular: many of the item manipulation mechanisms from Tales of Phantasia (ToP) have returned, and some have been further evolved in SO. The feature set includes being able to change the encounter rate; alchemically transform items; and send carrier pigeons off to retrieve goods.

The interface for the menus is also fairly slick given the era; continuing the high standards set in ToP and unobtrusively adding to the functionality already present. Items can be arranged by numerous categories, including: first letter, armour, foods, and so on. This well-conceived system for organisation helps considerably with the sheer volume of discoverable artefacts in both games.

Characters level-up ‘a la Carte’ in each of these close cousins, wavering little from the tried-and-tested approach of numerous RPGs before and since. But it is the closely linked skills system in SO that proves refreshingly different from its peers. Skills points earned during combat are used to increase character abilities. This works like the Dragon Quest series’ Class system, in that each member becomes an expert in healing, fighting, or one of several other areas.

This trait development is intrinsic and deep in SO, and many will cite it as the key gameplay component for this title.

Linear

Those hoping to experience these original, well implemented concepts in an exploration-driven environment will be disappointed, however, as SO is linear. Very linear. About as railed as Seiken Densetsu 3, in fact.

Those who advocate SO as an Action-RPG tend to champion the many secret Player Controlled Characters (PCCs) through the game as evidence of non-linear design. This is in fact quite a misleading argument, as it fails to address that there are limited significant route deviations available at any stage of the game.

Herein – I have resolved – lays the route of my concern with SO and its hijacking of the Action-RPG genre: while it may look and at times play uncannily like a Zelda, Dragon Quest VI, or ToP, it just isn’t one!

These other titles are similarly linear through much of their life, but have a freedom in the final third of play time which uniquely defines their genre.

This renaissance with non-linear exploration late in the game makes revisiting towns and dungeons significant, and often rewards the player with new treasures and playfields.

During these re-visitations; fresh dialogue typically augments the roles of the NPCs; tangible demonstrations that the plot has been affected by the player’s actions.

SO’s NPCs, in contrast, fail almost uniformly to react to events. When a spaceship falls spectacularly to the ground near a small village – the residents are oblivious to it. When you help to deliver a people from oppression – they are equally indifferent (and continue to spout nonsense about failed relationships, or bad weather …).

These are symptoms of a game which simply does not approve of – nor ultimately accommodates – the player stepping off the beaten track and challenging their surroundings. For it is not that Tri-Ace has programmed the NPCs to react indifferently, but rather that they have not been programmed to react at all – far too many of them regurgitate just one forgettable dialogue throughout the game.

Even Chronotrigger – which veers precariously close to the linear – makes some allowances for back-tracking. In Square’s revered time-travel oriented title, there are optional character driven sub plots late in the game that add enough breadth to make each playing experience unique. Significant to my case – they require the player to invest time re-exploring towns and dungeons previously exhausted, unearthing new treasures as they go.

In a nutshell – SO does not reward this behaviour; once you have explored an area, there are few reasons to return later on.

The hidden PCC’s in SO were perhaps intended to replace (or re-invent) the ‘open-ended final third’ design championed in previous Action-RPGs. And in fairness; there are enough of them to make each run-though quite different; but not in the same way.

If SO’s success is defined by whether it provides a viable alternative to the open-ended exploration we have become accustomed to, then I believe it has failed. And without it; one cannot help but feel this is a game driven by pseudo random encounter rates and monotonous tile-by-tile progression.

At best this is a poor man’s Action-Adventure game; it’s unfolding ill-advisedly determined by character selection… Seiken Densetsu 3 anybody?